You’ve just been Mandelblitzed: 9 things to know for March 6
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You’ve just been Mandelblitzed: 9 things to know for March 6

AG’s recommendation to disqualify Otzma Yehudit head Michael Ben Ari over incitement to racism enrages the right while some wonder whether his view carries much weight

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Michael Ben Ari, head of far-right Otzma Yehudit, and supporters at a Tel Aviv demonstration, November 15, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Michael Ben Ari, head of far-right Otzma Yehudit, and supporters at a Tel Aviv demonstration, November 15, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

1. Oh no he didn’t! Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit’s recommendation that the Central Elections Committee disqualify Otzma Yehudit chairman Michael Ben Ari — who was all but certainly on his way to the Knesset thanks to last month’s merger with the Jewish Home — infuriates the right.

  • To be clear, Mandeblit does not have the final say. The Central Elections Committee will make a decision on the matter later today, and even if it disqualifies the far-right activist, who has served in the Knesset in the past, the matter will require ratification from the Supreme Court, which has been far less willing to ax candidates since barring Ben Ari’s sensei, ultra-nationalist Meir Kahane from running in 1988.
  • That’s not to say the decision-makers don’t have quite a bit of dirt on Ben Ari. Mandelblit’s ruling is replete with recent quotes that would make your racist uncle seem as dovish as Shimon Peres.
  • In one rant last year highlighted by the attorney general, the Otzma Yehudit chairman said: “We have to change the equation regarding anyone who dares to speak against a Jew. [Such a person] is a dead man. He must not come out alive. No expelling him, no stripping him of his citizenship. He does not live! A firing squad takes him out, they way the Arabs understand.”
  • Ben Ari appears to have set the bar for disqualification so high (or low, depending on how you see it) that even his colleague, another Kahane enthusiast, couldn’t meet it. Mandelblit admits Otzma Yehudit’s second candidate Itamar Ben Gvir has said some “extremely disturbing” things that “approach disqualification” territory; however they apparently weren’t enough for the attorney general to put the kibosh on him.
  • Mandelblit’s decision hasn’t helped convince the Union of Right Wing Parties that the justice system is not biased in favor of the left. The Jewish Home-National Union-Otzma Yehudit alliance releases a statement claiming “someone” is trying to overthrow the right-wing government and lambasting Mandelblit for not handing down similar rulings in cases pertaining to Arab Israeli “terror supporting” candidates.
  • In a relatively tame statement of his own, Ben Ari tells reporters that the attorney general had acted “negligently” and had not done his job thoroughly.
Otzma Yehudit candidates Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Michael Ben-Ari, right, carry a mock coffin with a man wearing a Benjamin Netanyahu face mask during a protest in Jerusalem on July 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

2. Who gave you the power? Some analysts manage to question Mandelblit’s decision without any apparent political agenda.

  • Haaretz’s Josh Breiner argues that if Ben Ari is really inciting to racism, “put him on trial. Otherwise, let the public decide. Unfortunately, the national religious public chose that it wanted him with them, that’s their problem. But who appointed the legal adviser to decide for them?”
  • Breiner goes further in an additional Twitter thread, pointing out that nothing in election law authorizes the attorney general to even make a decision on the matter. This is up to the election committee and the Supreme Court alone.
  • Moreover, the Haaretz reporter points out that there is a section in the penal code barring “incitement to racism” — the same phrase used in the 1985 Basic Law that prohibits candidates from such conduct. But Ben Ari has never been charged with a crime, so why should the election committee have any right to disqualify him for doing so, he asks.
  • Breiner adds that the Basic Law was adopted over three decades ago, “the same year that sexual relations between men was outlawed.” Freedom of expression has developed extensively since then. Consequently, the incitement to racism clause should be interpreted far less stringently.
  • Elchanan Gruner, from the pro-Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Hakol Hayehudi (Jewish Voice) daily, quips on Twitter that Ben Ari’s disqualification simply gives way for a different ultranationalist to enter the Knesset. Gruner recommends it be Bentzi Gopstein, whose Twitter handle happens to be “Kahane was right.” The former right-hand man to Kahane had his candidacy tested in a petition ahead of the 2015 election that made similar allegations of incitement to violence when he was a member of the Yachad party (which didn’t pass the electoral threshold).
Otzma Yehudit leaders (from L-R) Michael Ben Ari, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein in a crowdfunding campaign video on November 5, 2018. (Screen capture/Otzma Yehudit)

3. Women. They’re just like us: In honor of International Women’s Day coming up on Friday, Yedioth Ahronoth gets a bunch of the female candidates in the upcoming election together for a joint interview that leads its front page.

  • In an apparent attempt to demonstrate that the female politicians are no different from their male colleagues, the story’s subhead lists some rather unremarkable observations:
  • “They know how to compliment each other, and understand that they share the same challenge. But more so, they know how to attack one another for concealing opinions and criticize those who do not put women in front of the stage.”
  • The candidates themselves offer more substantive comments throughout the interview. URWP’s Idit Silman remarks toward the end that she hopes that in any report done on female candidates ahead of the next election, the group will boast Haredi women as well.
  • Hadash-Ta’al’s Aida Touma-Sliman concurs with her colleague from across the aisle and adds that “maybe Israelis will eventually understand that equality for women sits on the same basis of equality for minorities – you cannot close your eyes and do only half the work.”

4. Just trying to help: Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is once again making headlines for allegedly abusing his power to help members of his Gur Hasidic sect, though at least this time, the individual is not an alleged sexual predator.

  • Haaretz leads its front page with a report that the head of the United Torah Judaism party was intensely involved in arranging preferred treatment over many months for Shoshana Alter, the wife of the head of the Gur Hasidic dynasty, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter.
  • “The moment she arrived she received service as if she was no less than the country’s president…It was VIP+++ treatment,” a medical official tells the left-wing daily
  • Another employee at the Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem said: “if the deputy health minister calls you, the message is clear: anything the rabbi’s wife or her staff want — they get.”
  • The charges follow similar ones made against Litzman over the past several weeks, in which police suspect he used his clout to fast track the release of Gur-affiliated convicted sex offenders in addition to blocking the extradition of Malka Leifer, who is wanted on 74 charges of sex abuse in Australia.
  • Leifer’s latest extradition hearing was taking place on Wednesday morning.

5. Case closed, so he thought: Channel 12 publishes recordings of Blue and White candidate and former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi from his interrogation in the so-called Harpaz affair.

  • Ashkenazi was suspected of obstruction of justice and delivering classified information to journalists in an alleged effort to influence the 2010 appointment of his successor, though the case against him was eventually closed.
  • Channel 12 says that the recordings, widely believed to have been leaked by Likud officials, depict Ashkenazi as obsessed with how the media portrayed him.
  • The quotes picked out by the TV channel show Ashkenazi boasting of his ties with Yedioth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes. In addition, Ashkenazi is heard sneering at his then deputy chief of staff Benny Gantz, who at the time was vying to succeed him. “He wants to deal with building his image. That donkey thinks he has a serious shot,” mocked the man who last month agreed to be No. 4 in Gantz’s party.

6. Reading between the lines: As the Blue and White party continues to delay the publishing of its platform, the Israeli press is left to draw its own conclusions in addition to relaying on leaks from the party itself.

  • Israel Hayom appears to show amusement at the party’s inability to come together on a single diplomatic vision. While the platform will not include terms such as “Palestinian state” or “evacuating settlements,” columnist Mati Tuchfeld asserts such concepts are in fact what the party’s leaders are all about.
  • The right-wing daily drops several quotes made by Ashkenazi over the past decade in which the former IDF chief expressed clear support for the two-state solution and the concessions Israel will be forced to make in order to ensure it can remain both a Jewish and a democratic state.
  • Blue and White provides a response to the report that avoids responding to its content, instead blasting the daily for serving as a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

7. A choice between Bibi and Bibi (I mean Gantz): ToI’s Raoul Wootliff points out that for all of Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz’s talk about offering a new, less antagonistic leadership, the former IDF chief is starting to look more and more like the man he is trying to replace.

  • “Gantz has repeatedly slammed Netanyahu for his ‘divide and rule’ method of governing the country… But at the same time, the Blue and White leader’s developing relationship with another institution targeted by Netanyahu — the press — may be starting to resemble that of the very man he says must be replaced.”
  • Wootliff cites a statement released by the Blue and White party going after Army Radio host Yakov Bardugo, who has been critical of Gantz: “Blue and White has no interest in answering Bardugo’s questions or going on his program, just as we do not go on programs in North Korea. Bardugo, Netanyahu’s representative at Army Radio, uses public air time to serve his master.”
  • Even releasing the statement via the party’s Twitter account, as opposed to Gantz’s, mirrored the prime minister’s use of Likud and “Likud sources” to dish dirt on opponents while retaining a degree of distance and deniability, Wootliff points out.
  • Bardugo responds to the Blue and White statement by highlighting Gantz’s refusal to be interviewed by Israeli press, another characteristic trademarked over the last decade by Netanyahu.

8. You scratch my back: In a measure not so subtly aimed at pleasing who he hopes will once again be his boss, URWP No. 2 Bezalel Smotrich submits a bill that would give lawmakers increased powers to block charges against sitting Knesset members, including the prime minister.

  • Using language frequently employed by Netanyahu to dismiss the corruption allegations against him, Smotrich says the bill will help prevent the “overthrow” of the government.
  • The bill would reverse the current system: whereas now, MKs must vote in favor of giving a colleague immunity against a coming indictment, under Smotrich’s proposal they would have the power to block an indictment by refusing to approve the removal of immunity.
  • The hardline lawmaker will surely request something in return. One piece of legislation that settler leaders are pushing to place at the top of Smotrich’s agenda is a law that would “cancel” the 2005 disengagement from the northern West Bank and permit Israelis to return to settlements that were razed during the unilateral withdrawal.
  • Former residents from two of those four settlements — Homesh and Sa-Nur — have launched a campaign in favor of the legislation, pushing MKs to pledge that they’ll advance it immediately upon the start of the 21st Knesset.
  • Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, who submitted the bill in the previous term, has already vowed to do her part, but asserts in a statement that Netanyahu did everything he could to block it, delaying a vote on the legislation nearly two dozen times.

9. The story that just won’t end: The fallout over US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel seems nowhere near over, with Jewish pundits eager to get their hot takes in on social media before the House votes on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism introduced in the wake of the representative’s comments.

      • For its part, Israeli media has largely avoided covering the story, leaving it for the other side of the Atlantic to tackle on its own. However, the two sides sort of converge with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman offering his thoughts on the matter.
    • For her part, Omar offered one of her first responses to the latest uproar over her comments, which suggested that pro-Israel activists have “allegiance to a foreign country.” Calming her supporters, Omar says “she’s fine.”
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